In the first instalment of a new column, Martha Sprackland – one of our poets-in-residence – muses on the humble lawn
When I first moved into a flat after getting married and started working the garden I was both cack-handed and idealistic, with visions of an urban paradise clearly out of the reach of either my ability or my budget. I shoved shop-bought, kitchen-sprouted potatoes into the ground and expected a crop with which I could feasibly fill a rustic hessian sack. I dreamed of a fragrant lawn of meadowgrass and tiny flowers, bee-loud lavender and goldenrod. For a while I toyed with the idea of a full-grown Mirabelle plum tree (those little cherry-tomato-sized orange plums a bit like apricots), and started collecting jars and bottles to preserve the glut of fruit I would have. I’ll mention at this point that my garden was a fifteen-by-twenty-foot square of lumpy ground, of which approximately forty percent was either poured concrete or dirty gravel, and the remainder predominantly bits of brick. Needless to say, my hopes exceeded the reality. But that wasn’t my main problem. The main problem was laziness and impatience coupled with those unrealistic expectations. My now ex-husband and I did a botch job on a couple of things, including hacking at the buddleia with a glorified breadknife and building a decking out of damp wooden pallets.
Dreaming of my picnic-lawn, I bought a bag of grass seed and a spade. We cleared away the green alkanet, dug out the knotweed, and moved the bigger chunks of brick to the peripheries. We stood back to survey our handiwork, and had a self-congratulatory beer. We then got drunk, and decided to level the land, in the gathering dark, in frosty February, taking turns between the one spade and the one fork (we didn’t, and I still don’t, have a rake), which must’ve been a fairly threatening first impression for the finicky neighbours next door. I wonder who they think we killed. In the morning we woke up with aching shoulders, dry mouths, fluff in our heads and black dirt under our fingernails. My memory was a little fuzzy (Officer).
Any proper gardener will tell you that sowing a new lawn – sowing anything – is about laying the groundwork (there’s a reason it’s a cliché). First, you should rake up the ground, chucking away big stones and bits of root, and treading the ground down with the heels of your wellies until it’s level. It should be left alone for a week, then stripped of new-growth weeds again before the soil is scattered with a basic improver, such as blood, bone and fishmeal, or chicken manure, or calcified seaweed. After combing that in you leave it again for another three days, before scattering a carefully measured-out quantity of carefully chosen grass seed mix appropriate to the soil type over the ground, raking over once more, and watering lightly. You stretch a square of plastic netting over it between stakes to protect the exposed seed from the attentions of fat London pigeons. You give it a bit of love, in short. You can guess how much of this I did, if not from my heavy emphasis on the word ‘carefully’ then from my aforementioned lack of a rake, or any fertiliser, or, most importantly, any trace of the ability to wait more than ten minutes for reward. So the next day, hungover and impatient, I scraped around at the surface with my spade, flung half a bag of grass seed over the lumpy soil, and then watched the patch with mounting frustration for the next six weeks. It grew slowly, reluctantly, not very healthily. I feel a bit guilty, now.
I did get my patch, a little five-foot-by-four-foot dip in the ground, erratically covered with tough, damp grass. We had no way of mowing it, meaning that the dark, cool under-foliage of the blades turned muddy and mossy, lifting the rhizome, bleeding the stems of all their green and turning them to a wan, slightly slimy mass under the superficial lawn. Still, I spent the whole summer out there, sprawled on my stomach, reading a book and smoking cigarette after cigarette. There’s a sort of trancelike, quietly hedonistic sensation that overtakes me after a couple of hours spent lying outdoors in the sun. I feel my skin drawing in light and heat, feel the blood brighten and thicken, and a sort of fullness inebriates me that’s close to drowsiness and close to euphoria at the same time. It’s a quieter cousin of the feeling you get listening to Andrew Weatherall at four in the morning in a roomful of friends and strangers, that sort of dappled, sweaty, swaying haze of dry ice, drumbeats and blue strobe. Everything becomes languorous – the smoke pluming slowly into the heavy air, the only visible cloud, softening the edges of everything. Sunglasses polarising the light. A bee might Doppler past; the wind lifting and stirring the buddleia with a soft sound like the riffling of a deck of playing cards; the susurration of the longer grass; the sudden thrum of a blackbird launching from the apex of the silver birch or staying there and tumbling its xylophone song into my half-dream.
It’s funny how our definition of lawns has changed over time. We think of it now as something managed, often something manicured and mown, something decorative and slightly suburban, but its roots are wilder than that. In fact, the word shares a cognate – llan – with a number of Welsh place-names, including Llanfair, Llanberis, and (yes) Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (I could fall down a rabbithole, here, but can’t resist pointing out how beautiful the translation is: ‘St Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool, and the Parish of St Tysilio with the red cave’), and means, roughly, a clearing or place of barren earth. It came before long to refer to intentionally cleared land, particularly the sanctified land occupied by convents, and later to refer to parishes entire. This means that for place-naming in Brythonic languages it often, though not always, approximates a religious prefix (St, or church); one example is Lannke (Eng. Landkey, meaning Saint Kea’s hermitage), whose nearest town is Barnstaple, where I was born. Interestingly, as I was reading up about Lannke I found that it is known for a breed of sweet cherry rare in other parts of England called mazzard fruit (Prunus avium) or bird cherry. I don’t know exactly where the name comes from – it seems to have referred at one point to a sort of drinking vessel – but Urban Dictionary gives good slang: ‘Cassio told Montano he’d knock him over the mazzard if he didn’t bacdafucup, but he kept fucking with him so Cassio knocked out his brains.’ I’m understandably quite intrigued by Cassio and Montano but I’ve strayed wildly off topic already. Back to lawns. In the sixteenth century the lawn was agricultural, and from the Middle Ages to the Jacobean age began to gain traction with ideas of wealth and the nobility (the wisdom being, of course, that anyone who had a little bit of grass to play with like that didn’t need to use it for growing food or grazing livestock).
Capability Brown, ‘England’s greatest gardener’ (and presumably a pal of Calamity Jane), fixed the contemporary idea of the lawn as part of a pleasure-garden or the grounds of a stately home, using smooth, close-cropped grass as an integral feature in his soft, loose designs. He said a brilliant thing to Hannah More, when he met her, putting his approach to landscape architecture in terms that appeal to my editorial brain: ‘Now there,’ said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there,’ pointing to another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject’. Properly beautiful stuff. I could go on. Someone could write a whole book about lawns (they have, in fact, more than one), not only their history but about their place in post-war culture and the rise of the suburbs, about mechanical and technological advancements that make lawn-keeping possible on a grand scale, about the different grasses popularised at different times, about America and lawn sports and country clubs and homeownership and patriotism and aesthetics and competition and morality and gender norms and environmentalism and homegrowing. You could write an entire social history of the developed world through lawns.(1)
In the seaside town I grew up in, on Merseyside, there were signs directing visitors to the illustrious Lawnmower Museum, which, alongside our rather superior model railway village and one of the biggest Edinburgh Woollen Mill shops I’ve ever seen, must’ve been the secret to the town’s charm and success. That place had its fair share of lawns and kept grass. Along the banks of the Marine Lake, the lengths of which pedaloes and windsurfers would drift, the stretches of well-maintained, short-clipped council grass was where we used to sit on hazy autumn evenings, taking in another of the town’s delights – the British Musical Fireworks Championship. There were manicured front gardens along the posher bits of Birkdale and Hillside. The village green is an important shared lawn, too, a communal garden carrying the weight of those ideas of civic duty and neighbourliness and Englishness deep in the heart of it. Every July the Ainsdale Horticultural Show day would come, bringing the riches of the YMCA gymnastics performance, a pet show (in which my rabbit won First Prize in the Poultry category), and a sort of miniature gymkhana display by Christians With Dogs (it involved ducks). We would duly enter our collection of funny homemade objects for judging in the white canvas tent. Category 155, Miniature Flower Arrangement (me, 1998, in a seashell, its crowning glory the single scarlet pimpernel my dad took me to the pine woods to find at 5am on show-day). Category 234, Victoria Sponge (Tom, three years on the trot, and a trophy to take home). Category 82, An Original Poem (me, 1997, and a whole unsteady career piled on top of it).
The village green the next day would be yellow, mangy, and dry as a bone, just like, a few years down the line from the glory days of the Ainsdale Show, the lawn of my high school field. Scuffed, arid grass marked out by white paint for the running track and the long jump. There we’d sprawl in groups, tearing up grass stems and digging little castles into the sandy soil, sometimes passing round a crumpled cigarette and analysing the minutiae of our relationships – everything was so important to us, every perceived slight and frustrated love and precarious friendship. The tiny microcosmic universe of that field. We would pick the silky, tight-packed fuchsia buds overhanging the fences, and pull the petals open with our fingers, too impatient to wait for them to bloom, too eager to get to the vivid pinks and purples and the delicate stamens of the flower. Everything was built on sand, there, and marram grass and beachgrass crept along the boundary fence as determinedly as the lads from the boys’ school down the road. (Appropriately enough, those dune grasses belong to a group called ammophilia, from the Greek ἄμμος and ϕιλος, meaning ‘sand-lover’.) There’s something so melancholic for me now about warm, dusty grass in summer like that, something yearning and half-forgotten – I wish, and I bet those girls the same, I hadn’t been so desperate to grow up.
As March pulled to a close this year I went outside to stand on the gravel path and look at my lawn. It didn’t stand the winter, unsurprisingly, given its inauspicious beginnings and its sad history of parental neglect. There were tufts of muddy grass here and there, but mostly the patch had reverted back to bare black earth, both a reproach and an invitation to have another go, to do better next time. The marriage, too, had failed to thrive, and in a few months’ time (from where I add these closing lines) I will be on the brink of leaving England, its tidy lawns, for Spain. I do still have that halcyon dream of my bee-loud garden, overflowing with greenery and tiny summer flowers. Give it another few years of chaos, and I’ll try again in some new garden. I’ll buy some seed, some food, and learn some patience, buy a rake.
(1) Peter Willis, ‘Capability Brown in Northumberland’ Garden History 9.2 (Autumn, 1981, pp. 157–183)
Martha Sprackland on Caught by the River/on Twitter.